x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A Dubai studio demonstrates the healing power of art

Mawaheb From Beautiful People in Dubai, which offers daily art classes for young adults with special needs, is changing lives.

Students at Mawaheb From Beautiful People at work in Dubai.
Students at Mawaheb From Beautiful People at work in Dubai.

The paintings lean against one another in the small Bur Dubai studio: a portrait of Justin Bieber, an ethereal imagining of a unicorn, so fragile it looks like the lines could blow away. Mosaic and ceramic works are stored on nearby shelves. Unframed pictures line the walls and several - some complete, some still to be finished - stand on easels scattered along the empty courtyard.

In the main studio, several people sit hunched over the table in the middle of the floor, carefully applying coloured tiles to empty canvases. One artist stands back, surveying his near-complete abstract painting. Everyone hums to the old Madonna song playing on the radio.

In a nearby kitchen, which is filled with empty cups and the smell of coffee, a purple paper bag brought in to the studio sits on the counter, bearing the cheerful message: "Every opportunity in life is an opportunity to sparkle!"

The setting was Mawaheb From Beautiful People, a non-profit art studio for young adults with special needs, last spring. After a summer break, the studio enters into its second year this morning. So far there are 16 students enrolled, between the ages of 19 and 35. Most will attend daily classes, from Sunday through Thursday, until June 30.

Fifteen volunteers and two professional art teachers help run the centre, which was launched last year to cater to pupils with disabilities including autism and William's Syndrome, which is often characterised by development delays appearing alongside striking verbal abilities and sometimes an affinity for music.

The work, however, is not just about drawing and painting. The studio is designed to help ease the transition into adulthood.

"We do art, but, through art, we teach life skills," says Wemmy de Maaker.

The 40-year-old social worker from the Netherlands began Mawaheb last year along with some royal help: the studio was provided by Princess Haya, wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Despite the assistance, the programme requires ongoing support, she says.

"I worked two years to open the studio with a lot of help from three other families and authorities in Dubai... [and] we are still looking for sponsors who are willing to support this wonderful project for those people who are an important part of our community."

Although similar in name and scope to the Beautiful People studios, which belong to the Netherlands-based Beautiful People Foundation, this is the only Mawaheb From Beautiful People studio, says de Maaker. She previously took part in an awareness campaign with Beautiful People chief executive Robert Wolff, to highlight the need for such a studio in this region.

When the demand calls for it, there are hopes that this will be the first of many.

"We don't have a waiting list yet," says de Maaker, "but soon we will be fully booked and will start a waiting list. When we see that there is a need for another studio in Dubai we would like to do so."

Mawaheb, which is Arabic for "talents", is organised as a non-profit outfit. Students pay fees to attend, with additional revenue earned by the selling of their work. In its first year, one of the artists, 25-year-old Anjali Kakar, sold eight paintings.

"This is a nice place, and I'm family with my friends," says Ms Kakar, from India, who will attend the studio this year for two days a week.

Her best friends at the studio are fellow artists Sarah, Rebecca and Tanya, she adds. "They are new friends."

Despite having never paid attention to painting before starting at Mawaheb in June, Kakar is not surprised by the work she has produced.

"I am an artist," she says with a laugh.

There are others who appreciate her talent.

"My mum came at opening time, and she had a good reaction. She was very, very happy," says Kakar, before turning back to her mosaic piece of art.

Although the artists do not personally reap the financial rewards of their work, there are other, more important, things to consider.

"The proceeds go back to the studio," says de Maaker. "When the artists have an art exhibition somewhere in Dubai, it is rewarding for them more than getting the money at this stage in their lives. For the students, being part of society is a big reward."

De Maaker, who has lived in Dubai for almost a decade, began putting together the foundations of the studio after discovering the lack of opportunities for young adults with special needs.

"I used to work at the Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre, in Dubai, and spoke to parents and teachers there. They says there's really a lack in projects, for the young adults.

"There are fantastic schools for the little ones, but as soon as they turn 18, they are out," she says.

The problem of finding a special needs centre catering for older people with learning difficulties had proved troublesome for many of the participants at Mawaheb, she added.

The studio was a welcome gift for the Charman family, who moved to Dubai 11 years ago, and whose only daughter, 25-year-old Sarah, has been coming to the classes since they began.

It was through a chance meeting with someone at Dubai's Down Syndrome Association that the family discovered Mawaheb.

"At that point in time, Sarah was at home with me doing absolutely nothing," says her mother, Karen. "Sarah was unhappy, and I was unhappy, because we all need to be doing something, we all need to be busy. It came for us just at the right time, and has been an absolute godsend.

In just a year, she has noticed a "huge" improvement in her daughter.

"She's matured, she's happy, and she's communicative," says Charman.

Sarah says she loves the painting and drawing classes, adding they have helped her become a more confident person.

"It's very, very nice here," she says. "I like the people."

Until the studio opened, some of the other participants had simply been kept at home, says de Maaker. One of them attended a special needs school for children until he was 27.

The centre runs on a non-profit basis. The price for students to attend lessons five days a week, Sunday to Thursday from 8.30am to 3pm, is Dh15,000 for the full term. Not all the students attend the studio full time, and several who have been unable to cover the costs have had their fees covered by benefactors, says Mrs de Maaker.

To bring out the best in the students, the studio teaches a maximum of 10 per day.

"We can give them so much more attention, and they love it. We can also teach them more," she says.

When the studio was closed over the summer, some of the participants attended a camp run by the non-profit Special Families Support Group. The group gathers more than 200 parents of children with special needs and is run by founder Gulshan Kavarana, the main art teacher at Mawaheb.

On a day last spring, her hands dotted with flecks of yellow paint, she called the studio "the most amazing thing".

"It's the best thing in Dubai," says the expatriate, who has lived in the emirate for 14 years. "It's what the Emirates requires so desperately."

The teacher stood by as one of her pupils, a 21-year-old Zambian named Viktor Sitali, added the finishing touches to his painting.

The artist, who lost his hearing when he was a young child, is working on a series of paintings influenced by the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.

There was, says the painter using sign language, no reason for why he chose the Mona Lisa other than how captivated he was by the model's eyes.

While the students have seen their artistic skills improve since Mawaheb launched, the volunteers say the learning goes both ways.

In just one example, thanks to Sitali, all the volunteers have started to learn sign language.

"We have so much to learn from them," says Kavarana. "They just believe in themselves and it comes out on the canvas. It's powerful.

"The best thing is they don't see their work being not good enough. For them, every piece that they work on is a masterpiece.

"And for me, too," she says.